Safety is life-or-death, say refinery strikers

Thousands of oil refinery workers are on strike over health and safety concerns. (Photo by USW.)

By Samantha Winslow, Labor Notes

Thousands of oil refinery workers are on strike over health and safety, demanding stronger measures to protect workers and surrounding communities from refinery hazards.

Workers cite outsourcing, short staffing, and forced overtime that produces dangerous fatigue -- in a job where mistakes can be fatal.

Five days into the strike, Shell Oil, which leads the table for the employers, reportedly offered a settlement that the union's bargaining team was considering, but by evening, the union had rejected the offer.

The Steelworkers represent 30,000 oil industry workers, at 63 refineries plus related oil terminals, pipelines, and petrochemical facilities. Together they produce 65 percent of the U.S.'s oil.

Agreements covering most of these members are bargained at a national table with the large oil companies. Once a national pact is reached, local unions will hash out contract details with each company.

To lead this strike, which began February 1, the union selected nine strategic refineries in Texas, Kentucky, Washington, and California, where the strike would pack a special punch. Factors in the choice included particularly harsh employers and sites with strong member participation.

Five of the nine are in Texas, the U.S.'s top oil-producing state. Striking workers converged on Houston Feb. 4 to protest outside Shell's corporate headquarters.

So far 3,800 workers are off the job. Non-striking refinery locals are getting 24-hour contract extensions each day. But the unions says, if need be, it will bring more sites out.

It’s the first national refinery strike since 1980. Back then workers at all represented refineries went out together, and stayed out for three months before they got a deal.

Dangerous fatigue

When oil refinery workers walk onto the job, they enter a world of hazards. Any mistakes or malfunctions can harm workers inside -- and also the surrounding community.

Workers know the worst-case scenario all too well. An explosion at a BP refinery outside Houston in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200. The refinery, later sold to Marathon, is one of the facilities where workers are striking.

Regulators found BP responsible for willfully violating safety protocols, and enacted millions in fines. Four years later, OSHA found 700 more violations, and enacted $87 million in fines for not correcting the violations that caused the explosion.

"We have a lot of forced overtime," said Dave Martin, vice president of the local striking the Marathon refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. "That was one of the main issues in the Texas explosion: people working overtime and not making the right decisions."

To avoid these types of accidents, in national bargaining the Steelworkers are trying to secure stronger safety protocols and keep management from subcontracting maintenance work.

Though there's already some contract language to avoid working tired, the union says managers skirt the rules. For instance, workers are supposed to have rest days after double-digit consecutive days working -- but Martin says it's not happening.

"As you get older, it takes more time to recover," he says. "A day off here and there helps, but it doesn't heal you up enough to where you are 100 percent."

And when employees leave, managers aren't filling empty spots; they're forcing others to pick up the slack with overtime. "If they staffed this refinery, it would create 150-200 full time jobs in our community," Martin says.

"The fatigue issue has been a very big problem in this industry," says Jim Savage, president of a Pennsylvania refinery local. Though his local isn't on strike (the refinery recently changed owners), he's been at the national bargaining table. And, he says, "that problem has consistently gotten worse. These companies are trying to run very lean."

Though oil prices are low, oil companies are still raking in the profits. The big five, including Shell, made almost $90 billion in 2014.

"Let's face it," Savage says. "This is the wealthiest, most powerful industry in the history of the world."

Community support

The strike has garnered support from national environmental groups and activists such as Oil Change International and founder Bill McKibben, who recognize that workers advocating for their own safety are also protecting the public. Oil companies have a long, sordid record of causing spills and accidents by cost-cutting.

Martin reports that the Catlettsburg strike has found local support, too. The union is receiving messages of solidarity from neighbors. Community members and businesses have been bringing food and supplies to the picket line.

"They know that the oil industry makes billions," he said. "They know the dangers in the facility, what goes on day in and day out. They want us in there."

While the refinery workers strike, managers are operating the facilities.

Another key safety issue in bargaining is that maintenance work, originally done by union members, is now being contracted out. The union emphasizes that full-time employees receive health and safety training from both the company and the union. Lower-paid, outsourced workers don't.

While raises are being bargained too, the union stresses they aren't the central issue. The Steelworkers do want the companies to lower the out-of-pocket caps on workers health insurance, which can amount to thousands of dollars.

As the strike goes on, the Steelworkers will have to weigh bringing more locals out on strike to increase pressure. "If they don't get serious and there is no agreement," Savage says, "it's gonna happen."